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Felix Healy: 'I walked with George Best... yet never felt I deserved it'

From Martin McGuinness to the Dalai Lama... and the greats he starred alongside. We take a trip down memory lane with revered Coleraine and Derry City folk hero (and singer) Felix Healy

Our Sport Lives and Times with Jim Gracey

A quiz question. Name the only Irish footballer, north or south, to have appeared in a World Cup Finals while still playing in his domestic league?

Started his working life alongside Martin McGuiness, sang last Sunday for the Dalai Lama, played at Coleraine with a fledgling Michael O’Neill... and huffed on the night he was part of the Northern Ireland squad’s famous Spain 1982 win over the World Cup hosts.

 Need a clue? Derry born, bred and proud... first names Patrick Joseph.

 Still not got it? Try the one and only Felix Healy, better known by his childhood nickname than by his baptismal ones.

 He is remembered best of all as the brilliant Coleraine and Derry City legend, whose playing and managerial CV lists many honours, chief among them, most people would consider, that place in the World Cup history books. Though Healy himself isn’t quite so sure he entirely merits the claim to fame any Irish League player today would cherish.

 Of course, when he looks back on a glittering career over three decades as player and manager, his appearance for Northern Ireland’s celebrated Spain 82 finals team, as a sub for captain Martin O’Neill in the second group match against Honduras in Zaragoza, will always be up there as a standout moment.

 Likewise the five weeks spent with Billy Bingham’s squad of household names on their journey into Northern Ireland football folklore, drawing with Yugoslavia and the Hondurans, then famously defeating Spain and drawing again with Austria to reach the knockout stages where France ended the dream, 4-1.

 Then 26, the Coleraine maestro, a class act either in midfield or up front, was one of four Irish League players in the Finals squad of 22, alongside Linfield keeper George Dunlop, gifted Glentoran midfielder Jim Cleary and his Oval team-mate, winger Johnny Jameson.

 But only Healy played, with Jameson turning down a place on the subs’ bench against France as the game was on a Sunday and playing would have conflicted with his religious beliefs.

 That makes Healy unique, as he always was.

 For eight years, he was the player Coleraine’s 1980s teams of all talents revolved around, from the twilight of prolific scorer Dessie Dickson to the emergence of a young Raymond McCoy. Ricky Wade, Ronnie McDowell, Kevin Mahon, Pat Mullan, Raymond Henry and Healy’s enforcer of a cousin, Roy McCreadie — they were the great entertainers of the era. But under achievers, too, with just a couple of Ulster Cups, a Gold Cup and annual trips to Europe as league runners-up to show for all their inventive football in a time of dominance by Roy Coyle’s Linfield.

 “If my old Derry City boss, Jim McLaughlin, had been in charge at Coleraine, we’d have won at least two league titles,” contends Healy whose renowned penchant for plain speaking has not been diminished by time.

 He goes on to list his greatest achievements as his title wins with Derry, as a player under McLaughlin in 1989, and as manager in 1997. “Derry don’t win leagues,” he explains. “They’ve been champions only three times in their history. I was there as a young supporter when they won the Irish League in 1965 and then to be directly involved in the League of Ireland wins in 89 and 97, those were special times for me as a Derry man.”

 His association with Coleraine, who he also managed, and Northern Ireland during that 1982 adventure, when he won four caps in all, also left him with a treasure trove of memories.

 Now, with the Bannsiders going well again and Northern Ireland challenging for a first World Cup Finals qualification since 1986, it seemed a good time to renew a valued old friendship, stretching back over those 30 years.

 In that time, out of many exceptional Irish League talents, the three most outstanding, for me, go back to that era.. Healy, Cleary and that other great Glens hero, Billy Caskey. All three, now in their 60s, look like they could still be playing and Healy reveals that they often come up against each other on veterans teams.

 Appropriately, we meet in a testament to the City of Derry’s past glories, told in pictures and paintings adorning the listed Edwardian building that is now the magnificently appointed Bishops Gate hotel within the historic city walls.

 Healy, 62 later this month, is trim and fit looking, lighter still from dispensing with the trademark tache of his playing prime.

 He has driven in from his home now in the Donegal village of St Johnston where he lives with his partner of 20 years, Caroline. He has two sons, Alan (41), Patrick (31), a daughter, Georgina (33) and five grandchildren.

 What stories he has to tell them, though he confides: “If anyone is going to talk about my football achievements, I’d just rather I wasn’t there.”

 Felix was never a shrinking violet. As a child, he was given the nickname by a neighbour, he thinks after the Felix the Cat cartoon character and his escapades.

 “It stuck to the extent people now think its my real name. Only my immediate family know I am Patrick Joseph and they only call me that when I’ve done something wrong,” smiles Felix, whose confidence extends to his second entertainment career. Equally blessed with a singing voice to match his football ability, he now makes his living, playing solo gigs at pubs, clubs and hotels across the north west.

 And on Sunday past, he sung Lionel Richie’s Love Oh Love to the Dalai Lama on the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit to Derry to celebrate the work of the Children in Crossfire group founded by Healy’s great friend, Richard Moore, who was blinded by a rubber bullet, fired by the Army, during darker days in the Maiden City which Healy counts himself fortunate to have emerged from, unscathed, physically and mentally.

 Only when he goes back to venues in and around Coleraine is he outsung by audiences of a certain age, chanting Heal-ay, Heal-ay!

 His iconic status among Coleraine and Derry fans is well earned so why the reluctance to accept acclaim for his role in one of the greatest phases of Northern Ireland football history?

 “To be honest, I felt it back then and its the same, talking now... I just didn’t feel I deserved to be there. I only came into the squad late during the old Home Internationals just before the World Cup. I hadn’t been part of the qualifying campaign and felt like an interloper among all those established players who had got the team to Spain.. Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Billy Hamilton, Chris and Jimmy Nicholl.. they treated me brilliantly and made me very welcome but I couldn’t stop asking myself, what am I doing here?

 “I talked about it recently with Jim Cleary and he said that’s exactly how he felt, too.

 “I had faith in my ability but nothing as Irish League part-timers prepared us for what was to unfold over the next five weeks. It was fun, at times chaotic, utterly memorable for my game time against Honduras, the fastest 14 minutes of my life, and the win over Spain. There were down times, too, particularly, for me, in the aftermath of the Spain game.”

 The rollercoaster ride began, aptly enough, in Brighton, deemed by the IFA suits of the time to be perfect acclimatisation for the furnace of Spain in June and July.

 It was the last place Healy expected to be when he trooped disconsonately off The Oval pitch a few weeks earlier as a beaten Irish Cup finalist against Linfield.

 “We were in the Lodge Hotel in Coleraine that night when the late, great Bertie Peacock came in and said Billy Bingham had been at the final was calling me up for the Home Internationals as Gerry Armstrong had suffered a knock.

 “Bingie played myself and Bobby Campbell up front in a 1-1 Windsor Park draw against Scotland and I must have played well enough to be included against Wales a few days later, in midfield.

 “We went 3-0 down and no-one wanted the ball so I kept shouting, give it to me and they were happy to do that, so I had plenty of involvement. Coming off the pitch, Billy Bingham took me aside and said ‘well done, son, you’re going to Spain’. I couldn’t believe it.”                  

 Sharing a room with wild man Campbell, who sadly passed away last November, meant Brighton, and later Spain, was never going to be a dull moment for Healy.

 “Bobby was up to all sorts, God rest him,” recalls Healy. “One day we were on our balconies, taking on water and orange juice after training, when Bobby, quite literally, comes roaring down Brighton seafront, being driven by a blonde in an open top MG and waving at an open mouthed Bingie.

 “Another night, Geoff Capes and a crowd from the World’s Strongest Man programme were in the bar after filming and there was Bobby, among them, knocking back pints of beer and challenging them to test their strength against him. Out of 12 nights in Brighton, Bobby spent only three in the room.”

 Disciplinarian Bingham was not amused and Campbell played no part in Spain.

 Healy also revealed how the oft retold folklore of the side drinking their way to glory in Spain was a myth peddled to the Spanish press by the wily Bingham.

 “Bingie told them we were training on pints and they bought the whole stage Irish scenario he spun them, totally writing us off before the Spanish match.

“If their players believed it, they soon found out differently. Yes, we were allowed a beer on nights after a game but I can honestly say the only time the squad really gave it a lash was on the night of the Spanish game. I should have been euphoric, too, but instead I distanced myself from it. Sad to say, but Northern Ireland’s finest hour, after Gerry Armstrong’s winner, was not mine. I spent the night in a huff.

 “At the time I couldn’t get over how close I’d been to getting on. Then it all changed and I didn’t react very well.

 “Bingie had told me to warm up as Sammy McIlroy had suffered a bad cut and was coming off. Then Mal Donaghy got sent off and one of the coaches, Martin Harvey, put a hand on my shoulder and said, sorry, we’re going to have to send on a defender. I felt as if I’d had a knife stuck in me.

 “It was my worst moment in football. The atmosphere that night in Valencia... if you ever wanted to be a footballer, that was your stage.

 “So I huffed and my mood hadn’t improved by the time we trained next day. My body language said it all and Bingie responded by leaving me right out of the 16 for the next match. He was right and I was stupid.

 “Looking back, I would have done things differently and I learned from that and indeed the entire experience. I don’t think anything like that will ever happen again for an Irish League player, the game has changed so much.

 “For me, the standout players of that World Cup were Mal Donaghy, Norman Whiteside, who had only just turned 17, and David McCreery whose workrate was phenomenal. We formed lasting friendships, I still get asked to reunions and once when the Irish FA organised a parade of legends at Windsor Park, I walked out onto the pitch alongside George Best. And you wonder why I never felt worthy?”

 Born in the Bogside, one of a family of 10, five boys, five girls, and brought up a corner kick from Derry’s Brandywell stadium, just as the Troubles were kicking off, Healy nevertheless remembers a happy upbringing amid the armoured cars and burned out bars of the town he loves so well.

 Leaving St Columb’s College at 14, he went to work as an apprentice butcher in the same meat company as the late Martin McGuinness. They got on but Healy admits they weren’t always on the same page during his former workmate’s remarkable journey from the city’s IRA commander to the country’s Deputy First Minister.

 It would be a convenient narrative to portray football as Healy’s escape route from the riots and gun battles he witnessed daily in the turbulent early 70s.

 But he maintains: “I was never going to get involved. I just didn’t see the point of it all. To this day I can see the damage people did, to themselves and everything else.”

 Fate, cruel as well and kind, played the greater part in shaping Healy’s football destiny.

 A target for cross-channel clubs throughout his teens, a move to Manchester City fell through and he ended up at Preston under one of his heroes, Bobby Charlton, finally landing at Port Vale in the Potteries where homesickness became his biggest enemy.

 Back and forward to Derry until he finally settled down, a move to the Bolton Wanderers side of Peter Reid and Sam Allardyce was agreed, and then tragedy struck.

 “I was due to sign for Bolton on August 20, 1979 and on the 19th, I got a phone call to say my brother Jim, who was just 21, had been killed when a car he was working under fell on him.

 “I was distraught. I’d also been through a marriage break-up, I’d a two and a half year old son at home and that was the only place I wanted to be so I headed straight back to Derry.”

 Out of the game for a time, singing in bands, he was eventually lured to Coleraine by then boss Victor Hunter, joining a travelling band of Derry players whose loss of their local club from the Irish League, due to the Troubles, became the Bannsiders gain.

 “I loved my time at Coleraine,” he emphasises. “We just should have won more. Jim McLaughlin would have seen to that, the best manager I ever played under. He served Liverpool as a scout for 20 years and wouldn’t have been out of place in their famed Boot Room.”

 The recurring theme of our conversation is that Healy talks only about those he has a good word for and admires and respects. If he ever felt wronged or hard done by, he doesn’t say, preferring to dwell on the positives.

 He admits, though: “If I have one regret it was not getting to Luton whose then manager, David Pleat, came in for me after the 82 World Cup. Mal Donaghy, who was there, said I would have loved it. But there was a complication with Port Vale having to be part of any deal if I ever came back to England and the move never came off.”

 Healy rarely watches live or even televised football these days due to a combination of his singing commitments and waning interest.

 But he has kept tabs on the progress of Michael O’Neill and Coleraine, remembering the Northern Ireland boss breaking through at the Showgrounds as an ambitious 16 year old.

 “He always wanted to go across the water and got his move to Dundee United after we played them in the Uefa Cup. Did I see him as a future international player and manager? You can’t tell at that age how they are going to do. Certainties like Norman Whiteside don’t come along too often. Michael has worked hard to get where he is and I am delighted for him that he has taken Northern Ireland to heights no-one expected to see again.”

 Likewise, he is admiring of Oran Kearney’s work at Coleraine, back on top of the Irish League for the first time since Healy’s heyday.

 “The chairman, Colin McKendry, has stuck by Oran through thick and thin, which is unusual these days and they are seeing the benefit. I am not sure they can win the league, though. They are as good as any team but Linfield have to be favourites again. If they need to strengthen their team, they can go out and sign new players in January, whereas other clubs cannot as they don’t have the financial resources.”

 A day spent in Derry with Felix Healy is indeed an education. One of the city’s best known faces, it is like being in that TV bar in Boston, Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

Except they don’t. Unless they are family.. and he’s done something wrong.

 Which is why he will be forever remembered in football as the one and only Felix.

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